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Birds of a feather swim together
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Jiang Tingting and Jiang Wenwen perform at the Olympic Qualification Tournament in Beijing. (Inset): China's head coach Masayo Imura embraces Jiang Tingting after the pair finished second place at the tournament. Yang Shizhong

Masayo Imura was amazed when she saw the long and elegant legs of Chinese twin sisters Jiang Tingting and Jiang Wenwen.

"They not only have perfect body shapes but world-class legs," said the renowned Japanese coach who took over the Chinese synchronized team at the end of 2006.

"I must develop their abilities to their full potential and help them become one of the best duets in the world and take a medal at the Beijing Olympics."

After a fourth-place finish at last year's World Championships, the best result for China in the event, the pair took a silver medal at the recent Olympic qualifiers in Beijing. Spain's world champions Gemma Mengual and Andrea Fuentes hoisted gold, while the Japanese pair Harada Saho and Suzuki Emiko grabbed bronze.

At the Beijing Olympic venue the National Aquatic Center, the Jiang sisters showed they are capable of a breakthrough podium finish in the women's synchronized swimming duet at the coming Games.

Dressed in colorful peacock swimsuits, the Chinese duo impressed the judges and spectators with their beautiful presentations and creative routines, such as forming a square with their legs.

"We created the movement and nobody can do it except us," elder sister Wenwen said.

"To form the square you need four legs that are exactly the same length."

Their slender legs also inspired the theme of their performance: "peacock."

"Don't you think their legs are like those of birds?" Imura said. "So, I decided that we should play with the idea of birds. And the peacock is a very Chinese bird, elaborate and graceful."

The 21-year-old sisters from Sichuan province took up swimming at nine and appear to be peaking at a fortuitous time.

At the 2006 Doha Asian Games, they dethroned Japan to win duet and team title events. It was the first time that China had won a medal in the sport at such a major event. Japanese swimmers, who have won four silvers medals at previous Olympic Games, have previously dominated the sport in Asia.

In order to help Chinese swimmers reach a higher level, Imura was invited to coach the Chinese squad, after the Asiad. The 57 year old has been coaching Japan's synchronized swimming team since 1978, helping the Japanese team win three golds, one silver and four bronze medals at the Asian and Olympic Games over the past 30 years.

But the coach discovered the two 1.73 m women, who are just 50 kg, were too frail to perform some of the powerful routines required.

"At that time they were very weak and often got sick," Imura said. "To become top synchronized swimmers you must have good stamina and power."

Her first task was to help them get healthier and stronger. The sisters do power training for three to three-and-a-half hours a day, which they found hard to cope with. And it was difficult for them to put on weight.

"We are too thin and we needed to become as strong as those Japanese swimmers," Wenwen said.

"We eat everything we can and even have a fourth meal in the evening, but it is really hard for us to gain weight."

Even so, Imura reckons the effort is paying off.

"Thanks to our team work, the sisters have gained 5 kg since the 2007 World Championships," she said.

The pair has also improved its technique and artistic presentation but the lack of match experience may hinder further progress at the Beijing Games.

"Japanese swimmers have ample experience at winning medals at big events, while we have none," Tingting said. "But we felt very excited about performing in front of our home crowd and we got a lot of support from them. I hope we can give our best showing on home soil."

(China Daily April 24, 2008)


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